Growing up in Central Mississippi, I never really knew much about Ramadan. Even as an adult, my only real experience with it was when I taught in IU’s Intensive English Program, and our guys from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, and so on would be slumped over the desk at the end of the day. We’d end classes for them a little early so they could get to the mosque for iftar. I knew it was a big celebration for them, but I never really appreciated the magnitude of it.
To get an idea of what I’m talking about, pick your favorite family holiday. Now mix that with a rock concert. Now add the Fourth of July. Now do for 28 solid days.
At night when we go out, we see the crowd like a tide. If it’s before the big cannon that sounds iftar goes off, we see them standing outside restaurants, seated at tables upon which is no food, sitting on blankets under the trees in the park with containers of food nearby, waiting. When iftar begins, everybody is suddenly in motion. There are sellers of all kinds of street foods. Restaurant servers seem like they’re being run off their feet. Every place has an “iftar menu,” a multi-course meal for a set price, even Burger King.
I have to say that I love it. I love the vitality of the streets at night. It is lovely to see families with children, to see the vendors selling their glow-in-the-dark helicopter toys or their bubble horns. The joy of the different styles of music I hear each night is contagious.
It’s not just the activity, though. I don’t know what it’s like when Ramadan isn’t going on, but people seem to find it a reason to be more kind, sort of the way Christmas is perceived in the West. In stores, when I’m haggling over the price and I know I’ve sort of low-balled it, I’ve seen several vendors hesitate and then say, “You know what? It’s Ramadan. Okay. Happy Ramadan.” While I know they’re still getting a generous profit, I find it lovely that they will say that, especially to someone like me who so clearly is from elsewhere and other.
I am going to be a bit sad, it must be admitted, when I can no longer look out my window and see the families passing by, heading to the festivities or away, when I am no longer walking through mosques and seeing men sleeping in the heat and hunger of the day, when Sultanahmet no longer holds aloft its beautiful lights welcoming and blessing all who pass below.
I wish we had something more of this in our culture, some more defined sense of community and, quite frankly, of joyous interaction. We could learn a lot from Ramadan.